Learning from the most challenging year of my working life

I constantly ask myself what I have learnt from the COVID crisis. This blog outlines my reflections as a CEO on how I have helped Humankind manage the ‘unprecedented’ context brought about by a global pandemic. Humankind and I have learnt so much and we want to take this learning into the future. I look back on the last year with a huge sense of pride in what we have achieved.

It’s the one-year anniversary of COVID and a good time to pause and reflect on the last year. It has been the most challenging of my working life. Believe me, I have had some challenging ones. We were faced with the worst of scenarios, both as a country and planet and in our communities, homes, and workplaces in the UK. Two weeks before COVID and lockdown we were still not really talking about the pandemic or its implications, at work or anywhere else. In just a week this changed dramatically. I spent this week, before lockdown, travelling to and from London, and we all felt on the edge of a crisis.

COVID has had an enormously detrimental impact on all of us. The after-effects on the people we work with will continue to be felt in many different anticipated and unanticipated ways for a long time to come. Uncertainty and chaos at differing levels is here to stay.

I have experienced crises in delivery before, but these have often been more acute and transient in nature, such as floods, 7/7 bombs in London, IT system failures, or more like a slow drip feed of emerging crises, such as sustained cuts in funding, increased numbers of drug related deaths and increased homelessness.

At the start in March, I struggled to grasp the enormity of the risk to everyone and the impending impact on our ability to deliver the essential services we provide. As an organisation we had several new people in senior positions, and we were not used to working together. We were about to go through the greatest period of growth in terms of new essential services, which we had ever had across a wide new geography. In addition, we had the challenge of providing continuity of services in all the essential services we already delivered.

From March into April, we grew in size and staffing by 25% and commenced large contracts in Staffordshire and the North East Prisons. In addition, we merged with EDP via a subsidiary model.

This first period, March to May, was one of no one knowing the size and impact that COVID would have. We didn’t know how staff and beneficiaries would be affected, or the extent to which the wider economies and infrastructure we rely on would be impacted or hold up through this sustained challenge.

My priority to work through with colleagues was how to work together and establish communication throughout Humankind. This first period in March established the communication structures and forums, which I believe led us to successfully manage the situation. Like others, we moved overnight to virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams, which we had never used before. Key groups and teams met twice daily on zoom to prioritise and deal with issues as they emerged.

It became clear to me that my role was to support others from a distance and my contribution needed to be from home. For many managers, including myself, this was alien to how we worked in a crisis, as our tendency was to be in and around services. The reality was that no one wanted or needed me to be in services. It was also clear that my role was to make sure I knew key areas were being addressed, whilst trusting others to get on and tackle them. Letting people get on with their jobs and having sound, timely decision-making processes were critical to our approach. We also had frequent communication to review what we were doing and make change where needed.

Much of my work was in my bedroom, with my laptop on the chest of drawers. I have never worked from home before! Like many people, I had to adapt how I worked and manage the stress of what we were going through. I started to experience 2–4 am insomnia and for the first time I started to get up and work in the early hours. I was not worrying about any particular issues, so I tried to have a routine and accept some of the changes as what they were. I think it did make a real difference that we were all experiencing similar issues.

The biggest challenges Humankind faced were areas where we were at the mercy of external forces. We had little control of supplies, which we needed to keep staff and service users safe. Protective equipment and basic infection control supplies were really difficult to get hold of. We were low down on the priority list, where hospitals were understandably at the top. Overnight, pharmacies no longer supervised patients or issued daily pick-ups of opiate substitution therapy. Our staff worked on maintaining safety whilst also delivering what we could. By having regular communication, we were able to prioritise equipment and ration it. We also put in measures to make supply of medication as safe as possible. In many ways we were fortunate that there were not more challenges that were outside of our control.

We were expecting more outbreaks of COVID among staff and service users, particularly in our housing support services. All staff and volunteers adapted quickly and changes we made to delivery together minimised risk.

We quickly felt supported by all key stakeholders and there was a sense of being in the crisis together. Many of our approaches were embedded in wider national and local responses. One major concern was funding reductions. All our funders have been incredibly supportive, and these fears were unfounded. All providers of similar services came together, shared information and worked much more collaboratively. This is an area we have been trying to sustain as we continue to fight the challenges COVID brings.

One of my key learnings through this process has been to recognise that where we have focused on what we can do, what really matters and placed care and trust in people, this has paid dividends. From the start we tried to move forwards cautiously and with surefootedness. Service users, staff and volunteers have fed back how supported and trusted they felt and how responsive and quick communication was. In truth, we were able to learn from others’ approaches that were less effective and see their negative impact. Of course, this was often because our major calls came after theirs, so we had the benefit of hindsight.

We had to decide whether to progress with the mobilisations of major new contracts in Staffordshire and the North East Prisons. Merging with EDP was more straightforward as we had done a lot of shared work previously and we had agreed a subsidiary model. Our biggest risk was Staffordshire, which was in a geography where we had no other services, and where we were TUPEing 120 staff across 6 sites. Two weeks before the contract start date it was too late to turn back. To turn back and not carry on mobilising the new service would place more service users and staff at risk than continuing with the mobilisation. The staff and managers transferring across to Humankind, as well as our supporting staff, did brilliantly and developed a great camaraderie.

There have been some major challenges to these mobilisations, with critical staff personally affected by COVID and a lot of staff having to shield. But we have pulled together and done what we could.

In the first lockdown we developed critical interventions and communication systems. Over the course of the year, these have been scaled up and down as the crisis has unfolded. Taking a cautious approach has meant we have not had any major crises and always been able to respond to the most critical needs of our beneficiaries.

We provided a lot of support to staff and invested in equipment to deliver services remotely and from home. Many services users prefer this style of delivery and this is something we will take forward. I quickly worked out that listening to and checking out how people were was essential before more task-oriented meetings. A colleague could feel fine one day and very much ‘out of sorts’ the next. Zoom meetings often give a one-dimensional view and can be like a pressure cooker. I would call all colleagues every day to check how they were. We have had to learn how to communicate and support each other in this more limited way in a pressurised situation. I want us to continue with a lot of the more caring approaches we have developed during COVID.

Our home, work and wider lives have become much more intertwined and appreciating this meant I could adapt more to what was going on that day.

Over time, I have had to learn how to be more patient and focus on critical areas within what we can do in any given situation. My remit is usually to spend a significant amount of time looking to the future. In this situation, however, where I have looked too far ahead, it has undermined what we are doing in the present.

When I look back on the last year, it’s with a great sense of pride on what we have collectively achieved and how we have adapted to what has been thrown at us. As I look forward to the next year, I do so with a sense of hope and enthusiasm, knowing that I have colleagues and staff in Humankind who have demonstrated ten times over their ability to be flexible, responsive and committed to what we do. Sadly, I also recognise that we will need to dig deep to draw on our resilience to deal with what’s ahead. The people we work with are undoubtedly in a worse place than they were when we started.

Our vision is for people of all ages to be safe, building ambitions for the future and reaching towards their full potential. COVID and its long-term consequences undoubtedly makes this vision harder to realise. I am more determined than ever to make it a reality.

I live in Sheffield with my partner and two teenage girls enjoy my life working in health and social care

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